WALTER CRONXITE on how the housing minister needs to take proper responsibility for creating demand for a charity shelter in his own constituency
It says something about what Croydon has become that the national homelessness charity has today opened its 11th Crisis Skylight centre on Surrey Street in the town centre.
The centre is in a former furniture store, where the council tried, and failed, to go into the pop-up food business with the Surrey Streatery (at some expense to the public). Now Crisis has use of a large part of the building, which finds itself right at the centre of another council project which appears to want to transform a down-to-earth street market into some sort of gentrified shopping “experience”.
The council is spending £1million to fill Surrey Street with bourgeois coffee shops and “artisan” bread, where Surrey Street’s value-for-money “pound a bowl” cries from stall-holders could be ousted by the call of “pound a croissant”.
Perhaps that’s what has been so offensive about so much of the council’s agenda for Surrey Street, since it is seeking to impose its “values” in an area of the town which actually does have some acute social deprivation, including a growing number of homeless.
The homeless, mainly single men, show different traits being made up of people ineligible for council housing because they are not part of a wider family unit, who likely have gone through relationship breakdowns, loss of a home through divorce, mental ill-health and alcohol and drug addiction.
They include many former members of the armed forces and some migrants from eastern Europe.
Nightwatch, which has operated in the town for 40 years, observes that their clients “frequently have an institutional background in such places as children’s homes, hospitals, penal institutions, and the armed services. A sizeable minority suffers from drug and alcohol problems but the majority are caught in a poverty trap of benefits and institutional life.
“There are more black British people than in the general population in Croydon – 28 per cent among our clients as against 13 per cent for the borough as a whole. People with the more concealed disabilities such as deafness, poor sight and epilepsy are over-represented. Women represent some 10 per cent of the total but generally remain homeless for a shorter time.”
Possibly the most worrying aspect of Nightwatch’s findings among their clients is how the proportion of those who are in work, and have homes, but cannot afford to feed themselves or their family has been growing. They say, “Over the past few years we have seen more people who have work and somewhere to live, but who cannot afford food after paying for rent and energy. These problems of high rents and fuel costs and low wages are serious and worsening.”
Crisis aims to get people off the street and to bring such people all the way back into the employment market through one-to-one coaching to help people find a home, get employability training, classes and courses and mental health support.
Crisis began working in Croydon 18 months ago, delivering classes and advice sessions in drop-in centres for people living on the streets, hostels and in supported housing projects. Their move to a permanent home will make it easier for homeless people to get the help they need from Crisis. The centre is equipped with facilities ranging from an IT suite, training kitchen and art room, to showers and a laundry.
The need for support is underlined by the more than 1,000 households being formally accepted by Croydon Council as homeless. The amount of rough sleeping in the borough has increased by 24 per cent since 2012-2013.
Croydon Council’s deputy leader Alison Butler was part of a duo of politicians cutting the ribbon at the Crisis Skylight centre today.
Butler can point to significant efforts by the Labour-run council to help those at risk of homelessness. Through its Gateway service the council has in the past year saved 553 families from being without a home and therefore also saved £1.8million for Council Tax-payers who would otherwise have had to pay exorbitant emergency housing costs.
The council is also trying to build 1,000 homes on many small sites. The latter initiative is strongly opposed by the local Conservatives, who dislike new housing in their wards.
The other part of the duo armed with scissors was housing minister Gavin Barwell, the Tory MP for the constituency, Croydon Central, fresh from the eventual publication of his underwhelming White Paper on housing.
It was a curious public appointment for his office to accept on his behalf – every client who walks through the door of Croydon’s Crisis centre represents a failure of Barwell and his Tory-led government’s policies over the past seven years.
Sending a housing minister to a centre for the homeless in his own constituency also opened him up, not for the first time, to the charge of being a blatant hypocrite.
Barwell has tried to deceive over the impact of his government’s policies on the grinding poverty which is forcing thousands of people into homelessness, even resorting to lying about it on national television. His own Department for Communities and Local Government, however, provides factual evidence that this was untrue.
Barwell might now claim – somewhat like at the blundering Donald Trump press conference this week – that “that’s what I was told”, though it seems highly unlikely given the DCLG figures that any civil servant would brief a minister so poorly.
The increase in homelessness in Croydon on Barwell’s watch as the MP since 2010 has been scandalous. Many Croydon families are housed in temporary accommodation across south London, as well as being shipped out to the Medway towns and to Essex, away from family support, Croydon schools and current work in Croydon that often have to be commuted back to every day. This is the bleak Britain of I Daniel Blake which Barwell has helped to create in just six years.
It seems likely that Barwell lacked the political clout to persuade Tory MPs in the wealthy shires of the need for radical action to tackle the housing crisis. It is sad for Croydon to see him having fallen short with the housing White Paper, in what could have been a career making opportunity.
Barwell is also part of a government that is supporting legislation to make it a duty to do what Croydon’s Labour council is already pioneering, to help people before they are evicted. The government has recently increased the amount of money to help with this task, but £61million spread thinly right across the country is still grossly inadequate.
Crisis chief executive Jon Sparkes, at the Croydon opening, said, “Croydon has faced significant rises in homelessness in recent years. We are confident that the facilities and the team here at Crisis Skylight Croydon will help remove the barriers many rough sleepers face, building confidence and moving people forward and out of homelessness for good.”
So it is good news that Crisis now has its own proper home in Croydon. Unlike so many of its clients.
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